Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Pediatrics and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A systematic review and meta-analysis of the nutrient content of preterm and term breast milk

Dominica A Gidrewicz1* and Tanis R Fenton2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Pediatrics, University of Calgary, 2888 Shaganappi Trail NW, Calgary, AB T3B 6A8, Canada

2 Nutrition Services, Alberta Health Services, Department of Community Health Sciences, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary, 3rd Floor, 3280 Hospital Drive NW, Calgary, AB T2N 4Z6, Canada

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Pediatrics 2014, 14:216  doi:10.1186/1471-2431-14-216

Published: 30 August 2014



Breast milk nutrient content varies with prematurity and postnatal age. Our aims were to conduct a meta-analysis of preterm and term breast milk nutrient content (energy, protein, lactose, oligosaccharides, fat, calcium, and phosphorus); and to assess the influence of gestational and postnatal age. Additionally we assessed for differences by laboratory methods for: energy (measured vs. calculated estimates) and protein (true protein measurement vs. the total nitrogen estimates).


Systematic review results were summarized graphically to illustrate the changes in composition over time for term and preterm milk. Since breast milk fat content varies within feeds and diurnally, to obtain accurate estimates we limited the meta-analyses for fat and energy to 24-hour breast milk collections.


Forty-one studies met the inclusion criteria: 26 (843 mothers) preterm studies and 30 (2299 mothers) term studies of breast milk composition. Preterm milk was higher in true protein than term milk, with differences up to 35% (0.7 g/dL) in colostrum, however, after postnatal day 3, most of the differences in true protein between preterm and term milk were within 0.2 g/dL, and the week 10–12 estimates suggested that term milk may be the same as preterm milk by that age. Colostrum was higher than mature milk for protein, and lower than mature milk for energy, fat and lactose for both preterm and term milk. Breast milk composition was relatively stable between 2 and 12 weeks. With milk maturation, there was a narrowing of the protein variance. Energy estimates differed whether measured or calculated, from −9 to 13%; true protein measurement vs. the total nitrogen estimates differed by 1 to 37%.


Although breast milk is highly variable between individuals, postnatal age and gestational stage (preterm versus term) were found to be important predictors of breast milk content. Energy content of breast milk calculated from the macronutrients provides poor estimates of measured energy, and protein estimated from the nitrogen over-estimates the protein milk content. When breast milk energy, macronutrient and mineral content cannot be directly measured the average values from these meta-analyses may provide useful estimates of mother’s milk energy and nutrient content.

Human milk; Lactation; Breast milk; Infant; Premature